• NJ Holden

At least I turn this moment into words

A burst of raucous laughter explodes behind the wall.

You droop in your chair. You try to return to the paper you’re reading, but you find it hard to focus; the words are there, but they refuse to connect and their meaning escapes you.

Another burst of laughter. You clench your fingers and the paper crumples. You force yourself to focus.

Someone is looking for a clerk. Briefly you consider applying, but quickly discard the idea. No one would hire vhariar for a job like this. Vhariars are supposed to be better. Smarter. And if they’re not, they may as well not exist.

You let your hands fall and the paper drop to the ground. Your eyes fall on the clock and you realize that an entire wake-cycle has passed. Again. How is it possible that every moment stretches to infinity, yet days pass at terrifying speed? You still haven’t done anything. You’re still at the same point.

You realize you might as well walk to the edge of The Endless Cliff upon which P’tyavru was built and just… fall. See how “endless” it really is.

No one would care. You have no friends and your family despises you. You’re just a waste of space. Useless. Talentless.

You feel a sudden urge to stand up and do… something. There’s so many things you should do. Clean up. Eat a meal that’s not sweets or alcohol. Read the mail that’s been piling beside the door. Find a job. You feel overwhelmed and just slump back into your chair.

The cloud thickens, materializes. It’s not a cloud any more, but a dark sludge, covering you, holding you, drowning you…

You reach for a piece of zem-phloem and shove it into your mouth. You chew zealously, letting the sweet syrup fill your mouth. It doesn’t banish the sludge, but lets you feel something beside it.

It’s the only thing you still care for doing.

When the sweetness vanishes, you spit the phylum out. It lands among the others on the floor. You really should clean up. Tomorrow.

The lock in your door clanks, but you only shift your eyes towards them. They open and Sabeo wobbles in, a big egg with short limbs and catfish-like whiskers. Sabeo is mehtru, one of the fishpeople. But you feel like you fit in better with him than with your own family. Him and other people in this building: mehtru, miyangua, humans and other lower species; thieves at best, failures like you at worst.

“Qovan,” he says. His voice sounds like a bubbling from a partially blocked drainpipe.

You say nothing.

He takes one sweeping look over the room and his whiskers twitch in disgust. “When I rented you the room, I didn’t know I was renting to a pig. Clean this up.”

Still you don’t answer. His whiskers twitch again.

“Ah. You’re in one of those moods, aren’t you? Well, I don’t give a damn. Your rent is due.”

You don’t even know what to say to this. You spent your last coin on zem-phloem, but the last piece is now a wet, slobbery pile on the floor. You’re broke. Broke, jobless and hopeless. The sludge rises and fills your throat, and you think of how easy it would be to drown.

Sabeo grunts and wobbles to a second chair, then plops down. His round, watery eyes center on you.

“You’re lucky I put up with you. I even got a job for you. So you can finally pay me off. See how generous I am?”

Job. You hate this word. It legitimizes what Sabeo finds for you, makes it look like a real deal rather than what it is.

But maybe it is legitimate. Maybe it’s the only thing you’re good for.

Another burst of laughter and you feel a sting of anger. How dare they be happy when you feel like this?

The wall is so thin you could punch a hole through it, but there’s another, invisible barrier between you and them, a barrier you have no hope of ever scaling or breaking. Even Sabeo, sitting two feet in front of you seems distant—he might as well be in another world. A world of light and water, of company and laughter…

“Tell me about this gig,” you ask, just to rip your thoughts away from this wall.

You can’t bring yourself to say “job”.


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The Outworlder

Out Autumn 2020

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